ATLANTA -- He did not catch much of the Louisville-Duke game, and definitely not the part that made some people turn away, and you can probably imagine why.
"I didn't see my own injury," said Shaun Livingston, "so I don't want to see anyone else's."
He will never be morbidly curious enough to search the Internet for a sneak peek at what happened when the game stopped Sunday in the NCAA tournament, or back on Feb. 26, 2007, when his life changed forever. See, that's the part Livingston doesn't quite get and will never understand. It annoys him almost as much as having a portion of his NBA career stolen from him. Why would anyone willingly watch someone's nightmare and someone's torture? What's to be gained by that? Are they driven by the taste of danger, of destruction? Is it really human nature to rubberneck at such an accident just to satisfy some sort of wicked urge?
"I guess that's the way things are today," he said, shaking his head and steering his left leg, the one with the five-inch scar, from an ice bucket in the visitor's locker room. "It's shock value. You don't see stuff like that every day, so it creates a buzz when it happens. It's a negative situation at the expense of somebody else, so that makes it OK, I guess. That's what I don't like. And that's why I focus on the positive."
Livingston paused. "And that's what he should do, too. Feed off the positive energy."
Livingston is talking about The Subject because it has come up again, six years after it happened, six years after he wondered if he'd lose his left leg. As a productive member of the Cleveland Cavaliers who's miraculously looking at a long career, he has made peace with it and maybe someday, so will Kevin Ware, the Louisville sophomore who suffered one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever. In full view of a national TV audience, a crowded arena and a horrified team bench, Ware fell awkwardly and his leg … well, you know by now. We were stunned and sickened by the sheer force of the compound fracture and uplifted by Ware's immediate response. He told his teammates to win the damn game and not worry about him. Surely, that made you tear up at the human spirit and the inner strength shown by a 20-year-old, while everyone else was frozen stiff.
And it also brought back memories of the last time an injury like that happened in a basketball game, when Livingston -- then a young Clippers player with a promising future -- had the mother of leg fractures. Ware's injury was more shocking, Livingston's more of a medical nightmare. He ripped almost every part of his knee and leg. Torn ACL, torn PCL, badly sprained MCL, torn meniscus, dislocated patella and tibia-femoral joint. Because his injury involved a combination of knee tendons and the bone joint, it was more of a jigsaw puzzle, with so many various issues jeopardized at once. Here's footage that was taken shortly after he began rehabbing:
Six years, eight teams, two leagues, two surgeries and many self-doubts later, Livingston was on the court last night, starting in place of Kyrie Irving against the Hawks and living the dream he refused to allow to die. If Ware needs inspiration and an example to follow, well, it doesn't get much more qualified than Livingston.
"He's a guy who's a fighter," said Cavs coach Byron Scott. "I think he's proven he could get back to basketball and back to the league and be successful. He's been tremendous for us."
Scott saw Livingston's injury and Ware's injury, and that was two more than he cared to witness. He said: "Watching the Louisville game, I went back to Shaun's injury and I think Shaun's was worse. It's been tough for him. Coming out of high school, everybody thought he was a can't-miss guy."
Livingston was a teenager built like a popsicle stick with smooth ball-handling skills -- and, because he was a 6-7 point guard, the natural projections were Magic Johnson-like. He was supposed to be a matchup nightmare in the NBA. At the time, the league hadn't plugged the leak on high school kids turning pro just yet, so Livingston was fortunate, in a sense. The Clippers took him with the fourth pick straight from the prom and figured he'd turn the franchise around. In his rookie season, he dislocated his knee and played only 30 games. And then, four months into his third season, his leg snapped.
Livingston said the toughest part was the first few weeks. "And then," he said, "it was just an uphill battle."
He turned his phone off, "changed my numbers," he said. People were well-meaning but he just didn't want to re-live it, to provide constant updates, to deal with the silent and awkward pauses in conversations. He leaned on family, close friends, his faith and, mostly, his love for basketball. That kept him going.
"A lot of the process is mental," Livingston said. "That's what's going to bring you back."
All the screws, the pins, the nerve damage, the repair -- it took three years to overcome. The Clippers didn't have that much patience; they released him after four years and a few false starts. He missed 101 of his first 248 games back and understandably lacked explosiveness in those he did play.
And then, the odyssey began. The Heat traded him after four games. The Grizzlies cut him. He went to the D-League, signed with Oklahoma City. The Thunder released him after three months. He bounced around a bit more: Wizards, Bobcats, Bucks and Wizards again, picking up loose change, playing without long-term security, keeping his bags packed and his mind from drifting.
Did his hopes ever bottom out? Never. Did they plummet? Absolutely. More than twice.
"You go through plateaus," he said. "You have good days, bad days and the doubt creeps in, but that's what you have family, God and loved ones for. People close to you, keeping you going every day, making you laugh and smile so you're not constantly focusing on your injury."
This season has been different. Much better. Even good, at times. He's a valuable reserve for the Cavs and on occasion, a starter. He averaged 27 minutes in March, with Irving dealing with shoulder issues. He has scored in double-figures in 10 of his last 11 games. Against the Hawks he played the entire 48 minutes, with 14 points, six assists, five rebounds and just two turnovers. There are glimpses where Livingston glides around the court with the grace of a sailboat in calm waters, snaking through a defense, reaching the rim without a hitch. And naturally, you wonder what could've been: All-Star, game-changer? Perhaps.
"It has been up and down for me, but I think I've bounced back," he said. "I feel good mentally and physically and more important, I have people who believe in me."
He changed his playing style. He really didn't have a choice. In high school, his game was above the rim when he wasn't running the point. Now it's all about covering the court and relying on smarts.
He is only 27. People forget that. His eyes and face are soft, his experiences hard. He might play another 6-8 years -- and how amazingly wonderful would that be? A free agent this summer, Livingston should finally get some security in the form of a multi-year contract, nothing massive in scope -- but all he wants is a home and a role and a career to continue.
What he doesn't worry about is getting hurt.
"You can't play that way," he said. "It's why I don't watch injuries. The mind is powerful. Those images get planted in your head, and then you go out on the court, and it's just not productive."
He said he'll reach out to Ware, in due time. He'd be willing to lend a soft shoulder, offer recovery advice, tell Ware what to expect in the coming weeks and months.
"You've got to focus on the positives," said Livingston. "That's what I would tell him."
Yes, the positives. And what would they be? What could a college kid, after a horrible injury, after emergency two-hour surgery, after having his dream of playing in the Final Four in his hometown of Atlanta rudely dismissed, have to look forward to?
All he needs to do is turn on the TV, though. Shaun Livingston is happy and healthy and playing basketball. And that's a sight that won't make Kevin Ware turn away.